Cable news divides to conquer

Partisan voices on rise in election cycle

It was MSNBC’s programming triumph of the summer: a pep rally for 15,000 liberals and seven Democratic presidential hopefuls in Chicago’s Soldier Field, emceed by the cabler’s marquee anchor, Keith Olbermann.

Not that Olbermann didn’t ask tough questions during the AFL-CIO-sponsored Democratic Presidential Forum, which MSNBC carried live on Aug. 7. But everything about the event — the setting, the audience of union members and their families, the star moderator and the tenor of the candidates’ campaign shoutin’ — seemed tailor-made to appeal to the average reader of the Huffington Post.

“For 15 years, I’ve stood up against the right-wing machine and I’ve come out stronger,” Hillary Clinton declared to one of the loudest applause outbursts of the 90-minute event. “If you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I’m your girl!”

The image of a football stadium full of (mostly) Democrats cheering and pumping their fists offers a stark illustration of the increasingly partisan tilt to much of cable television’s political news coverage. In the old days, TV news, like most mainstream journalism orgs, took pride in maintaining a non-partisan stance. Now, that attitude seems antiquated amid competitive pressures and a growing sentiment among the public that most media coverage of politics is heavily biased anyway.

The rise of strident partisan voices on all-news cablers isa longtime trend that has gone into overdrive during thiselongated presidential election cycle. The polarization of the TV dial is being driven by a confluence of forces within the television industry and the body politic.

Perhaps the most significant cause has been the public’s steady disengagement from politics and elections, as evidenced by the long-term decline in voter turnout for presidential elections from a peak of nearly 65% of the voting-age population in 1960 to less than 50% in 1996(though turnout did spike to 55% in 2004). That turnoff of politics and politicians means the most likely viewers for political news coverage arepolitical junkies who come to the set with strong opinions in place.

“There are fewer and fewer people reading a daily newspaper, and fewer and fewer people tuning in to the nightly network news. That diminishes the (media’s) ability to have a nonpartisan conversation about politics that engages everyone,” says Tom Hollihan, a professor of media and politics at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. “What you have now is (all-news) networks trying to reach those people who are most interested in politics. Those are people who tend to be intensely partisan and have a take-no-prisoners attitude to politics.”

Moreover, opinion-oriented talkshows that are largely done in-studio are a lot cheaper to produce than sending a crew of reporters and producers on the campaign trail for in-depth reporting.

“That’s a business decision for networks,” Hollihan says.

The TV biz has undergone a niche-ificaiton process with the growth of cable and satellite distribs. More recently, the explosion of news and information sources on the Internet, and the concept of a national political conversation has given way to the “echo chamber” effect, in which the politically engaged “are drawn to those (media) sources that tell you what you want to believe,” Hollihan says.

From its birth in 1996, Fox News Channel has tub-thumped itself as a “fair and balanced” antidote to the long-held perception of a liberal bias in TV news, specifically at CNN. In the past year, MSNBC has embraced the left, at least for one hour a night, with its irreverent but clearly liberal-leaning 8 p.m. news roundup program “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

“Countdown” has been on MSNBC since April 2003, but its viewership has spiked during the past year, ever since its host began offering a semi-regular, often-fiery commentary segment in which he has inveighed against the GOP’s agenda and called for the resignations of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

For the month of July, viewership of “Countdown” rose 88% year-to-year to a nightly average of 721,000 viewers, still well behind Fox News’ 8 p.m. anchor “The O’Reilly Factor,” which averaged 2 million viewers.

MSNBC’s Aug. 7 debate, meanwhile, drew 939,000 viewers in its live telecast — nearly double the channel’s primetime average in July of 529,000 viewers but low by the standards of other debates hosted by Fox News and CNN — and a midnight ET repeat brought in another 433,000 viewers.

“You’re not going to survive in cable doing a straight news-of-record broadcast,” says Phil Griffin, senior veep of NBC News and the exec in charge at MSNBC. “You’ve got to give (more) information and analysis. … By 8 at night, most people who tune in have a basic understanding of the news of the day.”

Olbermann’s liberal stance contrasts to most other big personalities in cable news, including MSNBC’s own Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews, and Glenn Beck on CNN’s Headline News offshoot. MSNBC’s opportunistic move to counterprogram the prevailing winds with an anchor like Olbermann was only a matter of time, observers say.

“Look at how the Bush presidency has motivated liberals to become really engaged again,” USC’s Hollihan says. “It’s only a surprise that it took a network so long to figure out that there was this audience out there.”

In some ways the trend in cable seems to be a throwback to a few generations ago, when competing daily newspapers would align themselves as staunchly pro-Republican or pro-Democrat. And it mirrors the well-documented trend of conservative voices taking root on the influential platform of talkradio during the past 20-odd years.

The starkest example of the current electronic partisan divide has been the major Democratic candidates’ decision to pull out of a debate that was to have been hosted this month by Fox News. The pullout sparked in part by a protest over a public quip by Fox News chairman Roger Ailes that was interpreted by some as equating Democratic candidate Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden. (CNN and MSNBC have hosted events this year with candidates from both major parties; MSNBC sent “Hardball” anchor Chris Matthews to moderate its GOP event in May.)

The Dems’ boycott of the Fox News debate has drawn a fair amount of criticism, even from liberals. “If you can’t stand up to (Fox News’) Chris Wallace, can you stand up to terrorists? Or the Republican Party?” Bill Maher quipped on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

But even if it strikes some as a bit precious, the Dems’ stance is reflective of the general public’s sentiment toward the media, according to a survey released this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The telephone survey of 1,503 adults conducted late last month found that 55% of respondents believe the news media (broadly categorized as local and network TV and newspapers) are politically biased, up from 45% in 1985, while 36% of respondents believe that news organizations “hurt democracy,” up from 23% in 1985.

But Republicans tend to be more critical of the news media than Democrats, the survey found. More than two-thirds, or 70%, of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans said they felt the news media was politically biased in its reporting, compared with 39% of Democrats. (The perception gap between the two sides was much smaller when the survey was first conducted in 1985, when 49% of GOP-ers smelled bias, compared with 43% of Dems.) Some 63% of Republicans surveyed said they felt stories and reports by the news media are “often inaccurate,” compared with 43% of Democratic respondents.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the news media’s decline in credibility and the increase in partisan chatter on the airwaves is the impact it has had on public policy debates — especially on complex pieces of business like the recent immigration reform bill that flamed out amid much finger-pointing and cries of “sellout” aimed at pols in both parties who sought a compromise on the thorniest issues in the bill.

The chorus of complaints from those who hew to a s
trict party line can drown out more reasoned efforts to examine the nuances of what’s really at stake in big public policy issues like Social Security reform or an overhaul of Medicare.

“Opinions (in the news media) can be helpful,” says Al Tompkins of the Florida-based journo think tank Poynter Institute, “but only if the people giving the opinions know what they’re talking about.”

As USC’s Hollihan observes: “In a world where fewer people are paying attention to big public policy issues, (politicos) are really under pressure to please those who are paying close attention.”

(William Triplett contributed to this report.)

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